Research Team Strives to Protect the Chesapeake Bay
Encouraging Pennsylvania residents to be literate about the Chesapeake Bay is an ongoing effort for Penn State’s Kristen Saacke Blunk, senior extension associate, College of Agricultural Sciences – Agriculture and Environment Center. “Pennsylvania residents must understand their ‘spheres of influence’ when it comes to protecting our landscape and our local water supply that drains into the Bay,” she says. “We must continue to increase our understanding in the next 10 to 15 years of the connections between land-management choices, local water quality, and ultimately what impacts the Bay.”
A Penn State research team, which includes Saacke Blunk, has launched a “discovery watershed” approach to improve local water quality in ways that ultimately restore the Chesapeake Bay and its ecosystem. The Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, home to 300 species of fish, shellfish and crabs.
Even though the Bay does not border the state of Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River—which represents just one of the more than 150 rivers and streams that drain into the Bay—drains more than half of Pennsylvania’s land base, providing more than 50 percent of the Bay’s fresh water. The goal is to adopt conservation practices that can improve water quality in bay tributaries. Pennsylvania residents, including agricultural producers, need to adopt better water stewardship and increase their level of concern about this precious water resource.
Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay has been a priority for some time. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2010 to vastly increase federal efforts and coordination to clean up the Bay. Cleanup efforts appear to be paying off. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the most recent Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey, there are about 460 million blue crabs—the second highest level since 1997.
For decades, the Chesapeake has experienced harmful algae blooms due to excess nutrients and sediments, primarily coming from animal agriculture, sewage-treatment plants, and growing stormwater volumes from urban and suburban areas in the watersheds feeding the Bay. As the algae die, their decomposition uses up large amounts of oxygen in the water, creating dead zones of depleted oxygen where aquatic life can’t survive.
The Penn State team wants to engage people within their communities and help them work together. “Anyone purchasing food, yard services, or making land-use decisions has the potential to impact the Bay,” Saacke Blunk says. Other groups that can become involved include local watershed associations, governmental agencies and foundations. “Pennsylvania agricultural, residential and urban practices will play a huge role in the Chesapeake’s future,” she says.
There is, however, disagreement over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. For instance, farmers’ groups are suing the federal government primarily claiming that its pollution standards aren’t legally enforceable. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau filed the complaint against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court in 2011, calling the recently enacted standards flawed in several respects.
The Farm Bureau emphasized that the lawsuit is not about reducing agriculture’s commitment to help restore the Chesapeake Bay. Rather it’s about challenging the EPA’s authority. Pennsylvania farmers are working with the Department of Environmental Protection on measures that would enhance efforts to reduce runoff from farmland. The lawsuit says that states, rather than the EPA, have the authority under the Clean Water Act to implement the total maximum daily load thresholds for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.
Nevertheless, Saacke Blunk says states have significantly reduced the nutrients coming out of sewage-treatment plants and are seeing increasing evidence that farming conservation practices are producing results. “With practices like no-till, cover cropping, riparian buffers, and keeping livestock out of streams, we’re not losing the soil and nutrients that we once were. We have seen overall improvements in water quality indicators in the Susquehanna River.”